03/28/2002 1:00AM

Tournament No. 2 with a bullet


March Madness and the Super Bowl are the two biggest betting events on the Las Vegas sports calendar.

The Super Bowl is a one-day extravaganza with wagering on a single big game. There are as many parties as there are casinos, and high-rollers are invited to take part in the festivities.

March Madness betting is spread out over more than three weeks. Actually, most of the wagering takes place on the opening weekend (when all the major parties are held) and the betting tapers off as the games dwindle down to the Final Four on a Saturday, with the title game on a Monday coming after a lot of tourists have left town.

The Super Bowl is the No. 1 betting event in Nevada (and the top one-day event by a landslide), but there's a chance overall betting on the NCAA tournament could exceed the $71.5 million wagered on the Super Bowl this year. Handle was high over the opening weekend and betting on the entire tourney could top $70 million if the succeeding weeks don't drop off too much.

Despite the obvious differences between events, March Madness and the Super Bowl are becoming more alike.

For one thing, they were each conducted later than usual this year. The Super Bowl wasn't played until February and the NCAA title game will be on April 1.

Casinos seem to be putting forth a little more effort in getting people to gather in large groups (and bet large money) on the Final Four and title game - something they have done for years with the Super Bowl. The problem is that a lot of locals are more inclined to place their bets and watch the games at home this weekend. That is in contrast to the earlier rounds, when locals had to go to the sports books to view all the games simultaneously.

But places like the Imperial Palace are setting up ballrooms with big-screen TV's and food and drink specials. The IP is hosting the Big 4 Party Saturday, with a free-throw shooting contest and drawings for sports memorabilia.

For those looking to watch the title game Monday night with a rowdy crowd, Binion's Horseshoe is opening Benny's Bullpen for a free party with food and drink specials and drawings during timeouts for merchandise and dinners for two.

Another similarity is that sports books increasingly are offering proposition wagers on the NCAA tournament - just like they do on Super Sunday - to give the public more betting options. You can bet on split lines, such as Kansas -9 1/2 vs. Maryland at +280 (win $2.80 for every $1 wagered), instead laying the standard $1.10 to win $1 on Kansas -1 1/2.

Individual props are available on how many points or rebounds certain players will get, and there are matchup props such as Maryland's Juan Dixon -1 1/2 points vs. the number of points scored by Kansas's Drew Gooden. Or Indiana's Jarrad Odle and Dana Fife -2 1/2 for their combined points vs. Oklahoma's Jason Detrick and Quannas White.

Just don't expect to see any props on Indiana's Tom Coverdale, because no one knows if he'll be able to play on his sprained left ankle and, if he does, how effective he'll be.

Even though Super Bowls have been more competitive in recent years - especially when the Rams have been involved - most games have been blowouts. Recently, Final Four games have taken on Super Bowl-like rout qualities. Since 1994, only one Final Four game has been decided by fewer than six points.

Final Four selections

As for my selections, I had Oklahoma beating Kansas in the final in brackets I filled out at the start of the tournament, and I haven't seen any reason to change my feelings on the two Big 12 rivals.

Earlier in the week I bet Kansas pick-em over Maryland and Oklahoma -5 1/2 over Indiana. As of noon Thursday, Kansas had been bet up to a 1 1/2-point favorite and Oklahoma was favored by 6 1/2.

Even though I like Oklahoma to win the title game, I'm more confident in the Kansas wager. If the Oklahoma-Indiana line climbs to 7 1/2 by tipoff, I'll be inclined to buy back the other side and shoot for a middle. I'm sticking with Kansas no matter how high the line climbs.

In Monday's title game, I would take Oklahoma plus the points against either Kansas or Maryland. If Indiana makes the title game, I would play the Kansas/Maryland survivor at -6 or less, but would consider taking Indiana and double digits. Anything in between would be a no play.

Futures no bargain

Be careful if you're looking to bet Final Four futures. Most books have Kansas as the favorite, at anywhere between 6-5 and 9-5, with Maryland around 9-5 or 2-1, Oklahoma between 2-1 and 5-2, and Indiana between 7-1 and 8-1.

Back in January, I wrote that the Patriots were the best value play at 12-1 to win the Super Bowl. A friend asked me one night if he should bet the Pats, and I suggested that he would actually be better off betting them on the money line and parlaying his winnings. He did that and ended up getting about 18-1 on his investment.

That strategy applies here, too. I like Oklahoma to win it all and books are offering about -300 on the Sooners to beat Indiana straight up. If you place $300 on Oklahoma on the money line, you would get back $400. Oklahoma will probably be about a +150 underdog (a conservative estimate) to either Kansas or Maryland in the title game. By parlaying the whole amount, your original $300 would grow into at least $1,000, while if you bet it at 2-1 in the futures you would have only $900.

The same goes for the other teams. For instance, if you like Indiana, you can get at least +280 on the Hoosiers to knock off Oklahoma. In the title game, they'd probably be about a +350 dog. A $100 investment would grow into about $1,710 if the Hoosiers win the title, far in excess of the payoff on a 7-1 or 8-1 future-book price.